The unscientific Victor Stenger

Note: I actually wrote most of this for myself a while back after receiving and reading the “God Issue” if New Scientist magazine, which I mentioned here in the blog at the time. I found it sitting in my documents folder and thought I would post it here after a little freshening up. While I believe Victor Stenger is a sharp-minded fellow, his article in the magazine seemed to me to be little more than a parade of his biases and unscientific thinking that was more disappointing than educational. It seemed to demonstrate that, indeed, all of us are at the mercy of what I tend to call the Tyranny of Assumptions–even those who are sharp-minded fellows.


A recent issue of New Scientist which I commented on recently, dubbed by its editors “The God Issue,” contains an article by Victor J. Stenger that I found to be a real disappointment: “The God Hypothesis.” I really expected better from Dr. Stenger, a professor of physics and an outspoken atheist—or at least I expected good science. But it wasn’t to be had (at least not in this article). Before reading this article, I was tempted to read his book God: The Failed Hypothesis (tagline: “How science shows that God does not exist”), but I must say: If this article offers some of the best Stenger has to offer, I think I will probably reserve my time for reading better critics.

The point of the article is that God’s existence should be a scientifically testable hypothesis. More specifically, he says that if God exists, there should be consequences of His existence in the world, and, if so, then science should be able to discover and examine those consequences.

That’s true as far as it goes, and, of course, Stenger attempts to take it farther than it goes. However, he displays the real problem within his last paragraph:

“Finally, I would like to comment on the folly of faith. When faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence. Nowhere is this more evident that in the US today, where Christians who seek to convert the nation into a theocracy dominate the Republican party. Blind faith is no way to run a world.”

Here, Stenger displays his true feelings and demonstrates how untrustworthy his conclusions should be considered.

Really? The US provides him the most evidence on planet earth that faith blinds one to facts and “warps all areas of life”? And the Republican party is dominated by Christians seeking to convert the nation into a theocracy? I suppose that explains why Mitt Romney is doing so well these days: His desire to convert America into a theocracy. Or perhaps Stenger is looking at the surprising success in the primaries (closer to the time when his article was written) of Rick Santorum, whose voting record not only shows that he planned no theocracy, but whose claims about the connection between the sexual revolution and damage to women’s well-being has been picked up and supported by non-theists, as well, as an observation worth its salt.

Stenger likes the pretensions of an untainted commitment to truth, but his words reveal that his “commitment” plays second fiddle to his personal bias and inclinations.

It’s visible enough in the rest of his article, and—nothing personal against Mr. Stenger—it is a problem shared by many. Let’s take a look at that problem, using some quotes from his article as anchor points.

“If a properly controlled experiment were to come up with an observation that cannot be explained by natural means, then science would have to take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter.”

Well, this really doesn’t happen, does it? Generally the position is taken that a “natural” answer will be found eventually, so let’s not worry about it. (Look at the faith many have in RNA world.) I’m not disagreeing with the idea inherent in what is being said; rather I am questioning whether many scientists really think this way. I’ve seen many more willing to simply go on faith that nature will eventually provide an explanation, and many have explicitly expressed their willingness to allow such questions to go unanswered eternally before they would “take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter.”

And it should be said that “cannot be explained by natural means” is one incredibly elastic umbrella. Stenger’s statement sounds oh-so-reasonable, when it is truly not too far from this infamous statement from biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Before it is taken as a concession to fair play, Stenger’s comment should be read with Lewontin’s eloquent professio fidei in mind.

Here’s another statement of Dr. Stenger in the article that was a real hoot: “Scientists have empirically tested the efficacy of intercessory prayers.”

This comment was funny, not only treating God as if He were a rat in a maze, but as if all religions believe in the same rat.  If all religions were somehow tapping into some odd, impersonal force in the world through intercessory prayer, then I could see these experiments producing results. But given that He is a person with goals and purposes—as opposed to a magical gumball machine, with which we put in magical quarters (prayers) and receive magical gumballs (healings)—Stenger’s comment that the results showed no impact is surprising to… whom?

(Next he moves on to Near Death Experiences, which is a non-starter for me. I have no dog in that hunt, since I do not believe the Bible teaches an immortal soul that leaves the body at death, so no surprises there. So, we’ll move on…)

When Stenger gets into scientists’ “seeking evidence against a god’s existence in the world around us,” he has to qualify himself:

“Here we must be clear that we are not talking about evidence against any and all conceivable gods. For example a deist god that creates the universe and then just leaves it alone would be very hard to falsify. But no one worships a god who does nothing.”

True, no one worships a god who does nothing, and yet, the creation of all that is—potentially with purpose and design and meaning and destiny—is hardly “nothing,” even if that is as far as things went. (It isn’t, by the way.) Understandably, part of what opens many people up to the idea that God, in some form or fashion, exists is the creation of the universe. One would be very justified in wondering why that God did so, and what His purpose was in creating the universe, regardless of His activity in or out of it since its creation. After all: A God who was present at the beginning may, indeed, show up at the end, His (imagined) absence of the moment notwithstanding. Is not the scientist, himself, the perfect picture of one who begins a process with a set purpose, allowing it to take its course so that the purpose is achieved by the time he returns to it at its conclusion (knowledge, cures, weapons, what have you)? [And, please, don’t get me started on the “falsificationism” fallacy he trots out there.]

And given the impotence physicists such as Mr. Stenger have experienced in explaining the cause behind the universe’s creation, his comment must be understood in that context. It’s an aside that reveals more than it seems.

Here’s another statement from the article: “If God is the intelligent designer of life on Earth, then we should find evidence for intelligence in observation of the structure of life. We do not. The Intelligent Design movement failed in its effort to prove that the complexity found in some biological systems is irreducible and cannot be explained within Darwinian evolution. Life on Earth looks exactly as it should look if it arose by natural selection.”

Yeah… except that it doesn’t. Evolution by natural selection simply does not explain what we see in the life of Earth, and it is a myth that all biologists think so (though I will not pretend that most of them do not). Even a leading light such as the late Lynn Margulis, though she had her own natural cause to champion, claimed that “The critics [of natural selection], including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism.”  Then there is James Shapiro, who apparently steamed evolutionist grand inquisitor Jerry Coyne when he pointed out that neo-Darwinism and “natural selection über alles” just isn’t cutting it anymore and that what he calls purposeful, targeted “natural genetic engineering” may play a larger and more important role than natural selection. (In other words, life on earth does not look exactly as it should if it arose by natural selection.)

Truthfully, Stenger’s pithy “we do not” comments (which pepper the entire paper) say more about his personal confidence and faith than they do about the actual facts.

No, the Intelligent Design movement appears to be doing just fine and, if anything, making headway. When there has been no successful “unintelligent” explanation for origin of DNA—the heart and soul of every life form on earth—it is rather arrogant to say that life on earth is exactly as we should expect it to be if there were no designer, all other considerations aside.  And when one begins to throw in the many additional considerations (e.g., the observations of James Shapiro previously mentioned, genetic entropy and papers such as Alexey Kondrashov’s “Why Aren’t We Dead 100 Times Over?”, et al.) it almost seems to go further than arrogance. Though, perhaps arrogance is enough.

Next in the article, Stenger attacks the idea of an immaterial component of the mind (he says “soul” but I would say “spirit”), by saying, “If that were true [that an immaterial component exists], we should be able to observe mentally induced phenomena that are independent of brain chemistry. We do not.”

This simply isn’t true, assuming I understand him correctly. What’s often referred to as “downward causation” has been seen in the laboratory before. Individual will has been seen to affect brain chemistry, rather than the other way around. (By the way, I assume he really does mean “independent of” and not “unassociated with” which would be different and irrelevant.)  If he is claiming that upward causation from chemistry to thoughts has been established beyond reasonable doubt, he is without real support.  His approach could be mimicked by saying, “If it were true that the mind is purely and completely a physical phenomenon produced by uncaring chemicals, we should be able to observe a chemical cause for every mental phenomenon. We do not.”  I would be happy to grant that this statement is faulty, but it is no more faulty than Stenger’s, which is more advocacy than science reporting.

(And, again, I take “independent of” not to mean “unassociated with.” I believe the evidence shows the human mind to be a product of both the non-physical human spirit and the physical human brain, so an association between mental phenomena and brain chemistry should be expected.)

More could be said, but this should be enough. I do encourage you to read the article over at New Scientist. (I’m not sure if a subscription is required; it might be, though often a limited number of free reads are allowed.) It’s title claims that “God is a testable hypothesis.” However, reading critically you will find that the article places its author under the microscope more than its supposed Subject.


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14 thoughts on “The unscientific Victor Stenger

  1. Mike

    Prof. Stenger wrote, “The gods worshipped by billions either exist or they do not. And those gods, if they exist, must have observable consequences. Thus, the question of their existence is a legitimate scientific issue that has profound import to humanity.”

    You wrote, “The point of the article is that God’s existence should be a scientifically testable hypothesis. More specifically, he says that if God exists, there should be consequences of His existence in the world, and, if so, then science should be able to discover and examine those consequences. That’s true as far as it goes…”

    I disagree. He’s missing a hugely important point, which you touch on later, saying, “After all: A God who was present at the beginning may, indeed, show up at the end…”

    More properly stated, Prof. Stenger has implicitly and falsely replaced the written statement, “those gods, if they exist, must have observable consequences,” with the concept, “those gods, if they exist, must have infinitely repeatable, on demand, observable consequences.” This is the crux of the issue with turning empiricism into ontology.

    I like to take an example from Prof. Lawrence Krauss, an atheist cosmologist. In discussing the scientific picture of the universe, he has stated (but didn’t think too much about it), “Empirical, falsifiable science will be wrong (2009 RDF talk at AAI).” Why did he make such a statement? Because objects of reality have and can have a time-dependence in their observability conditions. We see this time-dependence arise quite naturally in dynamics/controls research, but the example Prof. Krauss discussed was stars. If the universe is expanding as we think it is, at some point, stars will become, in principle, unobservable. At that moment, do they switch from being scientific entities of reality to being non-scientific myths from our forefathers who observed them? Perhaps we measure a higher order derivative in the expansion of the universe and predict that stars would one day return to our visible universe. In the meantime, are stars non-scientific garbage? I think not.

    At some point, we have to realize that the inductive requirement of science is simply too restrictive for it to adequately form the basis of a consistent ontology. The question one must put to the claims of the empiricism-as-ontology crowd is simply, “Why should/must the objects of reality have observability criteria which are time-independent?” Until one can answer this satisfactorily, any further work in this direction has smuggled in an enormous assumption which is nearly just ipse dixit.

  2. Howdy, Mike. I think we agree, and that is one of the reasons (though there are others) why I threw in that wonderfully flexible qualifier “as far as it goes.”

    It cannot go so far as to establish the claim of his book’s title, that science has proven that there is no God, and for the reasons that you state very so very clearly.

    Knowlingly, methinks, Stenger chooses to focus on a God whose impact should be detectable empirically in our present time, realizing that his reach simply cannot extend to such another sort. And, in a deft slight-of-hand, he dismisses such a possibility as irrelevant, since “no one worships” such a God. It is not irrelevant, of course, because the existence of such a God — and the purpose of such a God, as well as the potential of future accountability fo such a God — is not conditioned on that God being one who is worshipped.

    However, he takes advantage of a seed of truth in his attack. The sorts of gods most claim to believe in (not all, mind you) are exactly the sorts who seem, according to those believes, to choose to have an impact in this world and are not of the sort who “do nothing” between beginning and end.

    But your criticism still rings true, because his claim to be able to test the “God hypothesis” is to treat a Person with will and purpose (albeit a divine person) as if He were a simple, brutish law of nature. The law of gravity has no volition. It does not choose to drop an apple on Newton’s head, for instance. Every apple released above Newton’s head will drop on that head apart from any “will” or “purpose” gravity might possess, for, of course, gravity possesses no such thing.

    Prayer doesn’t tap into a force. If it is a prayer to the real God, it connects one to a Person. Just because no one dances when a flute is played, one cannot conclude that there are no persons available to dance, nor can one conclude the people cannot dance. Though you might have cause to suspect that, if these people exist, they do not like your music…

    I do think some scientists concede, in their heart of hearts, the truth you stated about science’s insufficiency as a basis for a consistent ontology. Regrettably, they seem to take that in the wrong direction, as in Hawking and Mlodinow’s turn to a extreme “model-dependent realism” in The Grand Design where they seem to desire to throw out such questions of existence and reality entirely. In this, I think Tim Maudlin is right and Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong. The questions Hawking and Mlodinow try to define out of the discussion do belong there — it’s just that, as you point out, their disciplines, in and of themselves, are not adequate to the task of truly and fully answering them.

    Thanks for your observations, Mike!

  3. I find many anti-theists reject some non-repeatable phenomenon. Yet the blessings and trials of humanity can be attributed to the same Supreme Being. Likewise many of the “spiritual nouns” cannot be explained by even the most tortuous logic: jealousy, love, compassion, generosity, lust, pride and shame are non-repeatable phenomenon. The observable evidence of love may be manifest in a gift, a kiss, a warm smile, an unsolicited compliment, or constructive criticism: while all other parameters of the experiment remain effectively constant. So a Supreme Being whose focus is the “spiritual nouns” may not provide the non-repeatable phenomenon sought.

  4. Texasborn

    Mr. Smith, you wrote: “(Next he moves on to Near Death Experiences, which is a non-starter for me. I have no dog in that hunt, since I do not believe the Bible teaches an immortal soul that leaves the body at death, so no surprises there” and “Next in the article, Stenger attacks the idea of an immaterial component of the mind (he says ‘soul’ but I would say ‘spirit’).”

    I agree with you about using the term “spirit” instead of the term “soul” since we both know that “soul” in Hebrew generally refers to a physical body and not an “ectoplasmic-type” entity. (The noun term of “ectoplasm” is used as the second definition in Websters, defined as “a substance held to produce spirit materialization.”)

    As I understand it–please correct me if I am wrong in my thinking–the scientific method of proving/testing a hypothesis involves measurements and analyses of observable events. Concerning the consideration of proving the existence of the “spirit”, I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:20-21: “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” (OKJV)

    A long time ago in the mid-1950s, I read a magazine that had an article in which Russian scientists were conducting an experiment, using a very sensitive weighing instrument, to determine if there was a loss in weight of a person at the exact moment of death. They had a terminally-ill patient on the instrument who was close to dying within a few short moments. The person’s weight was recorded before death–I forget within how many thousandths of milligrams of weight it recorded–and would you believe, at the exact moment of death (however it was defined at that time by the scientists), the weight amount immediately decreased on their measurement scale indicator by an infinitesimally small amount! I believe they conducted the same experiment several times, to confirm the validity of their research.

    I can’t help but wonder what today’s atheistic scientists would think of that “evidence”, if they had known about it today!

    Of course, I no longer have that magazine in my possession, so I am unable to document the source in more specific terms.

  5. Hmmmmm… Thanks, Texasborn, for the info, but I would have to look into it. I thought I had read the exact opposite, and that no difference in mass/weight were ever detected. And I switch out “spirit” since it seems to me that he is specifically talking about the mind and that aspect of mind that we would normally refer to as the spirit in man.

    Thanks, again, and have a wonderful Sabbath and Feast of Weeks!

  6. Texasborn

    Mr. Smith, the exact opposite of what? That the body GAINS weight at the exact moment of death? (:-D)

    What constitutes the mind? Is it merely the firing of synapses where nervous impulses pass from one neuron to another? Well, neurons do have weight, just as electrons and protons do, although that weight is infinitesimally small.

    I guess I could search on eBay for that magazine issue, but I would think the chances of finding it there on auction are “infinitesimally small”! (:-D)

  7. Ha! 🙂 No, I meant opposite in terms of “no change” versus “any change at all.” Of course the human mind is the product of the human spirit and the human brain, and neurons certainly do their part. But even though a good sensory neuron weighs about the same as 600 sextillion protons, you are correct: they are very small! About 0.000001 grams. Still, even at death, though they would no longer fire as in life, their mass (and weight) would remain unchanged.

  8. The human spirit (put into man) is immaterial (non physical). Therefore there would be no change in weight at the moment of death. Perhaps what the scientists (accidentally) measured was the chemical/electrical energy taking place in the body before and after death.

  9. Texasborn

    Hmm, interesting answers, which led me to the question: does a thought in the mind have weight?

  10. Great question! But the fact that some thoughts are weightier than others notwithstanding (yes, I think I’m funny), no, thoughts in the mind should have no weight, in the same manner that the first moves of the King’s Gambit or Queen’s Gambit in chess weigh no more or less than the board before a move is made at all: it’s only parts rearranged in meaningful ways, and it is the parts that have mass, not the “gambit” itself. There is no additional source of mass in a thought, so there would be no reason for the brain to weigh any more after the thought than it would before, so the thought would add nothing.

  11. Chess! Perhaps we can talk you into writing a post about your chess philosophy someday. With fifty comments! Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a queen’s pawn opening that can continue as a queen side attack – or – quickly shift into a king side attack. The computer program picked up on what I was doing, so it started doing opening moves that forced me to pick one or another, early! (Who writes these programs, anyway?)

  12. Actually, Steve, my chess philosophy is “Look up chess gambits on the Internet and grab a couple of names to use in your comment’s example.” 🙂 Seriously, I am a poor chess player who is grateful that he can still beat his kids (we play infrequently), but is soon not going to be able to say that anymore. However, if you would like to read my children’s chess philosophies they can be found in these posts: “Boy #3, Six-Year-Old Future World Chess Champion” and “Yet ANOTHER Chess Prodigy discovered in my family!” (Note: Their techniques are not recommended for tournament play.)

  13. I’m not a chess master, either. Now, your son hit on something with the Flying Bishop. It represents an astounding, three dimensional knowledge of chess.

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